Saturday, 4 June 2016

Van Beuren Makes a Fable

When the cinema world gave up stoney silence for music and voices toward the end of the 1920s, New York City was left with three major cartoon studios—Fleischer, Van Beuren and Paul Terry.

The Van Beuren cartoons get denigrated in many quarters. Let’s face it. The Fleischer shorts of the early ‘30s were better drawn and better gagged. But it wasn’t as if Van Beuren cheaped out like Terry, who didn’t want to pay for music rights or outside characters and, I suspect, would have continued churning out silent black-and-white shorts if he could have gotten away with it. Van Beuren did none of those things. It spent money getting the rights to the number one radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy, as well Otto Soglow’s comic strip character the Little King (and, later, the Toonerville Trolley and Felix the Cat). The studio paid for popular tunes and Technicolor. Despite that, not only did the Terry plant outlive Van Beuren by more than three decades, it grabbed top Van Beuren animators who were left without a studio in early 1936.

However, no one expected any of that in 1930 when Exhibitors Herald World published a feature story on the making of Van Beuren cartoons. We reprint the article (from Feb. 22) below. At the time, Van Beuren’s shorts—which included Grantland Rice Sportlights, Talking Topics of the Day and Song Sketches in addition to the Fables—were distributed in the U.S. by Pathé. The photos accompanied the article; it’s a shame better prints aren’t available.

Tower of Babel was Mere Tombstone Compared to Animators’ Shop
Introduction of Sound Doubles Cost and Labor, and Triples Tax on Nerves of Sound Cartoonists — But Ain’t We Got Fun!

NEW YORK, Feb. 18.— "Give us a good pansy step, Jack."
The musical gag man swung into action, minced his feet around and waggled his posterior. He finished in a sort of pirouette
“THAT ends on six,” he said. "Get the pose?"
The animator bent over his tracing paper, his pencil flew. It took him a few seconds to sketch the action. Complete, it portrayed a hippopotamus, a female of the species, indulging in a lively, if undignified dance.
Over Their Drawing Boards
Three or four other men, music and roughs in front of them, were bending over their drawing boards in other parts of the room. They paid no attention to the dancer.
And that, perhaps, will be the picture that presents itself should you happen to visit the home of Van Beuren's sound cartoons. Animators, fill-in men, a musical gag man; in the next room a photographer steadily disposing of the material accumulating on his desk.
Animators. . . . Lively people, you'd suppose; just regular cutups. But no, not these fellows. Not often, anyway. Occasionally, if Jack Ward does a particularly funny step you may see a gleam in the eyes of these men who are paid to be humorous on paper. Otherwise it's all solemnity.
Music Doubles Cost and Work
It's the introduction of music which has caused the change, almost doubled the cost and labor of making animated cartoons. The action now has to fit the music, everything is done in beats and the master mind who can piece together the odds and ends of the jigsaw puzzle becomes a pretty well paid executive. And this fellow is the musical gag man, a chap they wouldn't have had any use for ten or eleven months ago.
The production of synchronized cartoons is a long and laborious business. But, according to these that do the job, it seldom if ever becomes tiresome. One week they fill monkeys with delirious aspirations in regard to the lady hippopotami who go scampering through the picture; a few days later they'll be drawing impossible animals performing impossible antics in an equally impossible arctic region. There is always change. They never come up against the same problems twice for the simple reason that they never repeat themselves.
The making of an animated cartoon begins with an editorial conference between the animators and the music directors. The general trend of the story is decided on and everybody does his bit in contributing gags and ideas. Then they work out the music to go with it and cut the scenario to fit the music. This is done by Gene Rodemick [sic] and Jack Ward who synchronize the whole business on paper before a line is really drawn. The chief animator, John Forster [sic], then divides the script into sections which he gives to his assistants, Harry Bailey and Mannie Davis together with the music that goes with them and everybody gets to work with pencil and tracing paper.
Ward, who can dance any step that was ever invented and a good many that are just nightmares, goes from one animator to another, helps him out on the tempo and poses of various routines or invents new ones to fit the action. Characters, of course, along with the trend of the story, have all been determined previously.
Drawing for Each Movement
One drawing is made for each movement of each character and, as they are done, the sketches are numbered, traced on to celluloid, filled-in in black and white by capable draughtsmen, and numbered again. Several of the characters often move at once so you may see a number of sketches with just arms, legs, tails, or beards in various positions. In the next room sits a photographer, celluloids stacked before him, a guide sheet at his side, a camera overhead.
He placed one, two, three, or four celluloids into a frame, according to what his guide sheet calls for, shifts the background the necessary fraction of an inch, pulls a lever and the camera comes down and takes just one picture. He changes the celluloids in the frame, takes another picture. Unless the pattern of the background becomes too complicated (that is, made up of separate strips which have to be moved at different speeds) he takes four or five frames a minute. On some days he may shoot 75 or 100 feet. On other days, when the going is tough, he may do only ten.
Follow Up with Piano
When the picture is complete they take it into the projection room and follow it with the piano. Musical gags have been worked out beforehand. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to do quite a bit of cutting or a little rephotographing on certain sequences to get the musical emphasis where they want it. An important thing in the drawing is the variation of tempo. While the tempo of the music may be constant for several bars, that of the action is constantly changed to obviate the possibility of monotony. In varying the tempo of the action and in still keeping it in harmony with the music, in bringing emphasis to certain beats, starting and stopping on certain beats, sustaining the action on still more beats (you can tell by this how much I know about music), the presence of a musical gag man is imperative.
Then there is the business of improvising in the breaks and working out sound effects. It is all quite complicated and the men who do it are well worth their salt.
To continue the original line of thought, when all the details have been worked out with the piano the orchestra is thoroughly rehearsed in constant synchronization with the films. When everything is perfect the music is recorded in synchronization with the action on a. separate strip of film, which is split into three sections, so that even then, if anything is wrong, there is room for remedy and the sound track can be shifted a little each way before it is made a part of the original film.
And that, roughly, is how a sound cartoon is made. It entails lots of thought, thousands of drawings, and intensive work for two or three weeks. Before sound came along it was possible to turn out animated cartoons in half the time with half the labor; there was no call for skilled musicians, for experts on the dance, for artists with a gift for rhythm.
Blend Voice with Trombone
Curiously enough, in sound cartoons, the human voice is a liability rather than an asset. When a character speaks its voice is blended with a trombone so that it fits the pictorial characterization rather than something human which would be out of place. Consequently, the studio, or workshop, or whatever you want to call it, is constantly invaded with old women who can cry like babies, young men who can crow and beautiful girls who are gifted in making weird noises. The animators may be bending over their boards working studiously while the place around them is a bedlam of menagerie sounds.
Some day they may go mad in their harness, these young artists and musicians; but they may find some comfort as they chatter and grin behind the bars, in the thought that they have made the world laugh.

Less than a month later, Exhibitors Herald World reported:
Amedee J. Van Beuren claims the widest world distribution for any short subject with the completion of contracts for the handling of Aesop's Fables, both sound and silent, in Canada, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Rumania, Spain, Portugal, Africa, the Philippine Islands, Japan, China, Australasia, Argentine, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. Deals also are pending for Germany, Switzerland, Russia and India.
But the Fables didn’t last for many more years. Walt Disney upped the cartoon ante by improving his animation, stories and designs, forcing everyone to catch up. In 1934, Van Beuren, now 50% owned by RKO, attempted to match Disney by hiring Burt Gillett, the ex-New Yorker who directed the Disney’s (and the world’s) most popular cartoon in the world to date—The Three Little Pigs. Within two years, RKO decided to distribute Disney instead of match him. There was no need for the Van Beuren studio any more.

My special thanks to Devon Baxter, who found the pictures you see in this post.

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